The Political Failure of Libertarianism

Sad news out of Iowa yesterday that the Libertarian Party senate candidate, Doug Butzier, was killed in a plane crash. Political junkies immediately speculated that this might well tip the close Iowa senate race to Joni Ernst. I’m not so certain of this; I think a lot of purist libertarian voters might just not vote for a senate candidate at all, or might even vote for the Democrat on the perverse theory that Ernst and other Republicans should be punished for their deviance from what I call libertarian P.C.

Iowa is only one state where the Libertarian Party candidate might tip a close race to the Democrats. There’s a Libertarian senate candidate in North Carolina, too; also in Georgia, where a Libertarian candidate tipped a Georgia senate race to the Democrats back in the 1990s if I recall correctly.

Which raises a useful question: what’s the difference between the Libertarian Party and the Democratic Party? Democrats are serious about politics, and actually care about winning. Hence Democrats got their own nominee in Kansas to drop out so they’d have a shot at defeating Republican Pat Roberts with an independent who will likely, though not certainly, lean their way. When was the last time you heard of a Libertarian candidate dropping out of a race in return for a concession or commitment from a Republican candidate? Doesn’t happen—because Libertarians are all about making statements attesting to their moral purity. Here at least we owe a hat tip to Ron Paul and Rand Paul, for they have the practical sense to run as Republicans and affect the trajectory of a party that actually has a realistic chance of winning and maybe even governing.

What prompts these cranky reflections is Nick Gillespie’s short two-part series on the best and worst libertarian TV shows (below). Nick notes at the end of each that he’s likely to get flamed on these picks, and I hesitated to join the pyromaniacs because Nick is a friend and I like him, but a couple of his picks illustrate the problem I raise above in a broader fashion.

For example, one of his “Five Best” libertarian shows is the Netflix version of “House of Cards.” (Whether the British original is better, I couldn’t possibly comment. But you may very well think so.) Now I enjoy the show, too, but why would it be considered an especially libertarian show? There isn’t any direct or indirect teaching about markets, or bureaucratic behavior.  The centerpiece of the show is pure power-craving by completely corrupt people. Are there such people in politics? Sure there are. Too many of them. Does this explain all people in politics, or all political life itself—especially American political life? No—it merely feeds a lazy cynicism and unseriousness about government.

A better show, from a libertarian point of view, would be the “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” shows from the 1980s, which were in fact written by two libertarian leaning students of public choice theory from the London School of Economics. (They were Thatcher fans, too.) I actually use scenes from these two shows in the classroom to illustrate for students basic points about public choice theory and bureaucratic behavior, and it is quite effective. I can’t think of single scene from “House of Cards” that I could use to real effect in the classroom to illustrate something authentic about politics.

Likewise Nick’s selection of “The Wire” deserves comment. Here he’s on better ground—especially Season 3, with its drug legalization story line—though I’d argue that “The Wire” is more of a neoconservative show, especially Season 4, with its sour look at the public school bureaucracy. (You can find my previous comments on “The Wire” here.) But the show’s creator, David Simon, is a leftist, and he conceived “The Wire” as a proto-Marxist view of urban life in America. The real lesson here is that good art transcends politics, or that sometimes Marxists inadvertently hit upon a realistic view of the world that was not their intent. (This explains some Marxist historians, like the late Gabriel Kolko, who are popular with libertarians. Kolko was Milton Friedman’s favorite historian of the Progressive Era—a fact that embarrassed and annoyed Kolko.) Once again, I think Nick’s selection of “The Wire” is susceptible to the criticism that it is too superficial.

As for the top five anti-libertarian shows selected in the second clip below, let me just put in a placeholder that Nick is wrong, wrong, wrong about the original “Star Trek.” But that will require a whole separate post, and will likely set off a full-scale war that even Doctor Who can’t fix.